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Tums and Dragons - A game of class

by Southern Woodenboat Sailing 27 Mar 2021 20:47 PDT
Wyuna on the Baltic © Southern Woodenboat Sailing

The success of a yachting class often rests with a few unforeseen events and decisions. For over 90 years two similar boats, the Tumlaren and the Dragon have competed for devotees.

The Dragon was designed in 1928 by Norwegian Johan Anker while the Tum was designed four years later by Knud Reimers, a Dane working in Stockholm.

In 1936 the St Kilda Yacht Club in Melbourne (now Squadron) was keen to adopt a one design class. After reviewing several options they chose the Tumlaren as the best boat for Port Phillip Bay. A license agreement was made with Reimers office and five boats were quickly built for the 1937/38 summer season. WWII quickly interrupted development and racing and by the late 1940's the Dragon had already dealt several blows to hopes of expanding the Tum fleet outside Melbourne and Adelaide.

Together with Stars and 6 metres, Dragons were selected as a keelboat class for the first post-war Olympiad in London 1948. The following year Melbourne was announced as host for the 1956 Olympics. Then came a right royal blow as HRH Prince Phillip started sailing the Dragon Bluebottle. The boat was built in 1948 by Camper & Nicholsons as a royal wedding gift from the Island Sailing Club in Cowes.

Empire and monarchy was still influential in post-war Australia and Phillip was becoming better known. Not only did he marry a future queen, it was revealed he had visited Australia in 1940 as a midshipman aboard the battleship HMS RAMILLES and again in 1945 aboard the destroyer HMS WHELP which berthed in Williamstown for wartime repairs (....and HRH does have a tattoo on his fore-arm*).

Local Tumlaren sailors, spotting their chance to be loyal "subjects" and Olympic hopefuls, began deserting to Dragons. In 1949 Ken Gourlay commissioned the first Tasmanian Tumlaren #34 Malaren from Max Creese at Battery Point. After winning his division in the 1950/51 Hobart season, the boat was sold to Sydney (re-named GLYN AYR) and Gourlay started sailing the Dragon Skatt. Otto Tuck at St Kilda sold Tumlaren #99 ZEST and was soon sailing the Dragon ZEST II. Similarly David Low, after building Tumlaren #309 Snowgoose with brother Bill (the current owner's father) was soon sailing the Dragon Snowgoose II.

Despite the deserters, a second batch of ten post-war Tumlarens were built. Tony Frederick who sailed #308 ZEA from 2004 noted that the Tumlaren had "a well organised class association and strict one-design control by trustees" to ensure the class continued and became a solid training ground for top Olympic skippers and crew.

Prince Phillip opened the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. The Dragon competition was sailed at Royal Brighton YC where Bluebottle won bronze with Lt-Cdr Graham Mann at the helm (minus HRH). Australia's Graham Drane in PAULA with Jim and Brian Carolan as crew placed 5th. Drane skippered Tum #200 Dondu (now Dingo) in the 1948/49 season to win the St Kilda Yacht Club championship and the Carolan brothers after purchasing ZEST from Otto Tuck, were club champions in 1952/53.

One small upside of the Melbourne Olympics saw Tum sailors grabbing quality Dragon masts left behind by international Olympic boats. By splicing an extra 40cm to the base, Tums could race with a lighter diameter mast rather than the original heavy cruising stick.

Royal results continued in Rome in 1960. Phillips cousin, Crown Prince Constantine of Greece won gold. His sister Sofia, the future Spanish Queen, was the Greek reserve. Harold "Mick" Brooke, the dinghy champion from St Kilda 14 ft Sailing Club was forced to sail a borrowed Dragon after a measurement infraction and took 11th place. In 1937/38 Brooke skippered #98 Acklorean for Roy Siddons to the inaugural Tumlaren Victorian State Title. In Tokyo 1964, Graham Drane was Australia's Dragon representative again, finishing 12th place in Cambria. That year Bill Northam took gold in the 5.5m class in Barrenjoey.

Munich 1972, saw the "Royal Dragon Curse" exorcised. The future Spanish king Juan Carlos placed 15th behind Queensland helmsman John Cuneo who won gold in Wyuna ahead of the East Germans on their home Baltic Sea (with little to gain by Training your Dragon with drugs). Cuneo only died last year aged 91. The dominance of Dragons was assured for at least 20 years until the Soling replaced it as the Olympic keelboat for Montreal 1976.

The '76 regatta was at the eastern end of Lake Ontario and a similar story to St Kilda might be told by Queen City YC at the western end of the lake. Apart from Chicago, QCYC had the largest fleet of Tumlaren in the 1940's on the Great Lakes of North America.

Seacraft magazine (Feb. 1955 issue) published an insightful article with a "fit for purpose" conclusion about class rivalry. Their NSW correspondent returning from Melbourne;

".....was struck by the large number of Tumlaren that raced there and wondered why the class never became popular in Sydney... but racking our brains we could only think of four Tums sailing in Sydney waters, one of which is MH26 SPINDRIFT on the register at Middle Harbour Yacht Club.

"The Tumlaren is a handy little boat with good performance in rough water, and therein perhaps lies the reason, not so much for the scarcity in Sydney as for the popularity on Port Phillip, for a yacht that is not hauled out at the end of each day's sailing, must be able to take it when the wind pipes up, as it often does, across the 30-odd miles of open water which lies southward of Melbourne.

"In Sydney few owners seem likely to build new Tums when Dragons cost little more, offer far better racing and are almost as convenient for cruising. Dragons have filled the place for a medium-small boat for hard keen racing and seen the disappearance of the popular 21 ft Restricted class designed in Melbourne by Charlie Peel.

"Dragon class racing received its greatest-yet filip from the presence of Bluebottle's owner at the 1954 Royal Regatta during the Queen's Australian tour".

The long fetch and short chop across the bay in Melbourne has had significant impact on yacht design and preferred class fleets. Victorian boats generally have more freeboard and more decking to cut through Port Phillip's chop without filling. The Tumlaren has proved a match for these conditions not found in Sydney harbour.

The large Dragon fleets at St Kilda, Brighton, Geelong and Hobart are long gone, but the Classic Yacht Association in Melbourne can boast six active Tumlaren, with two undergoing restoration and two recently discovered in storage. The Royal Melbourne Yacht Squadron's selection of the Tumlaren, 84 years ago has been well vindicated but it's not quite game-over as one Dragon, the varnished timber Boressen SIENA is still regularly sailing with the Classics.

A footnote

In a recent SWS interview with Ms Audrey Giblin she told how in 1945, she and her friends met British officers at a nightclub in Melbourne and were invited to dine onboard HMS WHELP berthed in Williamstown for wartime repairs. Her friend, Miss Teddy Collins, a wartime services driver was delivering mail to the ship, including some addressed to "Prince Phillip of Greece" and said if you're going on board, look out for him.

During dinner, the surgeon excused himself to tend an officer in sick-bay laid up with carbuncles who mostly complained of not being able to attend dinner with the local girls. The guests were invited below and introduced to a Lieutenant Phillip lying in a bunk bed wearing a loose shirt. They sat on the bed and chatted noting a rack of books above on Greek mythology... so this must be him. On leaving, the guests were instructed to be discrete so the ship didn't become a target for the Japanese and the local press.

Article and research by Charlie Salter...SWS' roving reporter!

This article has been republished by permission from

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